Offensive yardage and points scored are up, while the defense is more consistently locking down. Special teams has gone from "improving" to a threat. But all that being said, when you are confident that a better Cardinal squad will show up Saturday in Notre Dame Stadium than the group who faced the Irish last November, that says very little. The 57-7 pasting was one of the darkest and ugliest beat-downs that Stanford has faced in many years.
There are a wide-ranging number of nuances to that game we can investigate. The post-Big Game letdown. The even bigger letdown after being eliminated from bowl eligibility the previous week. The senior "leaders" on Stanford's team who still had strong emotional attachments to Tyrone Willingham. But taken together, they still cannot explain how the Card could have been beaten so badly by the ugly stick, held by an admittedly mediocre Notre Dame team.
The most striking difference from last year to this year that should change the makeup of this matchup is Stanford redshirt sophomore quarterback Trent Edwards. The Irish have yet to face the famed prep superstar, who redshirted in 2002 and was in a hospital bed that Thanksgiving weekend last year. Edwards had suffered a quadricep hematoma a week earlier in Big Game when a Cal defender dove helmet-first into his leg after a pass was thrown late in the fourth quarter. After several surgeries, significant necrosis and blood loss, the signal caller faced an extended rehabilitation that winter.
If there is one positive upshot to the terrifying injury, it may be seen in Edwards' legs today. He has proven thus far this year a much greater threat scrambling with the ball than most observers had ever conceived when scouting him in high school and in his first two years on The Farm. If you take away his sacks, the quarterback has picked up more than five yards per carry this year. Moreover, his mobility when scrambling or rolling out has allowed him to make throws on the run beyond his pocket passing.
The most impressive attributes Edwards has brought to the table in his greatly improved second campaign under center have been his accuracy and decision making. For the former, the slinger is averaging better than 61 percent on his completions, and he has thrown for more than 67 percent strikes in his last two games. Edwards was famed for his 75 percent completions in high school at Los Gatos HS, though he will be the first to admit to you that the quality of defenders he faced at that level was child's play. The reads and throws he is making today are easily the best of his football career.
His decisions had been a cornerstone of his strong 2004 season, until Edwards took a big step back against Washington last Saturday and tossed three interceptions. The Stanford slinger had thrown only one pick in his first three games. We cannot know which Edwards will show up in South Bend on Saturday, but his poise under pressure (particularly the onslaught from Justin Tuck & Co.) will be one of the greatest keys to this game.
To that end, we next look at the Stanford offensive line. The elder statesman among the front five is redshirt junior Brian Head, who has just seven career starts under his belt. That pretty well sums up the abject youth and inexperience of this line.
Stanford will start redshirt sophomores at the other four spots. The best spin you can put on this starting line is that their uniform youth and inexperience puts them on such similar footing that they have very good chemistry. They manned the scout team two years ago, moved up the depth chart last year and find themselves as the "veteran" starters this year.
In two years, a senior-dominated offensive line will come to South Bend and be a force, but this Saturday, they will be a question mark. There's gold in them thar' hills, but holding penalties and lapses against Kent Baer's blitzes are possible and indeed probable this weekend.
You will see the Cardinal employ tight ends in a variety of formations, including "jumbo" packages that put three on the field at once, and the double-tight power formations.
Fifth-year senior Alex Smith and redshirt sophomore Matt Traverso are both accomplished blockers who will aid the green but improving offensive line. In running sets, they have been critical in breaking off big plays.
But the threat your eyes will follow from this group on Saturday is Smith running through the Irish defense. The 6'5" 255-pound specimen is as good an athlete as Stanford has ever seen at the tight end position, and he turned down a jump to the NFL this past spring to make himself even better in his fifth and final year.
Smith's size and strength are daunting for linebackers and safeties, but his mobility and hands make him such a consistent target for quarterbacks. There is a reason why this tight end leads the team with 19 receptions on the year and is the only player to catch at least four passes in every game in 2004 for Stanford.
Edwards loves to go to Smith on third downs and as a safety valve. Also watch how he picks up yards after the catch, with his quickness and agility in the open field as well as his ability to break tackles.
The 267 yards per game Stanford is passing thus far this season (versus a wretched 187 a year ago) has come from much more than the tight end position and Alex Smith, of course. The story of this offense in 2004 is unquestionably the surge forward by the receiving corps. With just one proven producer coming into the year in sophomore Mark Bradford, there were great questions at the position.
But under new receivers coach Ken Margerum, who you may remember as a favored target of John Elway on The Farm more than two decades ago, and then as a pro playmaker on the Super Bowl Champion 1985 Chicago Bears, the group has blossomed.
The two biggest leaps forward have come from Stanford's two tallest wideouts. 6'7" sophomore Evan Moore (15.5 ypc) is as close to Edwards as any two friends on the team, and their chemistry-building work in the off-season has revealed itself this fall. Moore was employed sporadically as a one-trick pony with the corner fade pattern as a true freshman last year, before he broke out and then was injured all in the Arizona State game. This year he is leveraging his size and strength to catch balls in numerous spots on the field. His one-handed highlight plays are gripping, and he is a tougher challenge for defensive coordinators today than Teyo Johnson ever was in his Cardinal career.
6'4" redshirt junior Justin McCullum (16.2 ypc) was almost totally written off after a slumping season in 2003 but he has been reborn under Margerum and is a leading producer. Look for him to catch more balls in the middle of the field, while Moore has been used on the sideline and on long attempts.
Bradford has been somewhat overshadowed by these emerging stories, but it is probably not fair to deem this a sophomore slump. Instead, the perception is of a rising tide among his position mates. The 6'2" athlete made his yards after the catch his focus in the off-season, and that is paying off already. Bradford is breaking more tackles to pick up tough yards after he connects with Edwards. The book on him says that he can sometimes "turn the switch" on or off, in both practices and games.
A critic would point to drops he had last week against Washington, though a proponent would remind that he led the team in receptions and yards. When he is focused, he has fantastic hands and is the team's best threat to get open and make a play.
The offense is rounded out by the backfield, which features a pair of very different tailbacks. Fifth-year Kenneth Tolon (6'1" 210) is the shiftier of the pair, with the quickness and bounce to his game that can take a plugged running lane and improvise to the outside for a first down pickup.
But the star of the last two games has been redshirt junior J.R. Lemon (6'1" 225), who has racked up three runs over 50 yards. Ironically, Lemon is the power back who runs hard downhill and breaks tackles, yet he has hit the home run with surprising frequency. It remains to be seen if he can continue with that kind of production, but at the minimum, he is a tough runner with gaining confidence who can push for hard yards. Lemon can also catch the ball out of the backfield on swing patterns or underneath the defense.
The running game is critical this Saturday for Stanford, and they may face one of their toughest tests all year trying to run against the Irish defense. Take away the run, and the play-action that Edwards and the offense so very much love to use will fall flat.
When you hear that Stanford's offense is improving, you may not be surprised. The Card have historically been a team who puts point on the board. But equally time-tested has been their lagging defense, which far more rarely has been a force on the field. 2004 is a different kind of year, though, as the defense possesses all kinds of seniors and experience.
While the offense starts sophomores at both WR positions, the quarterback, fullback and four spots on the OL, the defense brings six seniors and four juniors in their starting lineup. A number of players in the two-deep on this defense are in their third year of significant playing time, and it is showing on the field.
The best summation you can give for the Stanford defense this season is that their worst half of football through four games was the 14 points they gave up to USC in that tightly-contested second half.
Last year, Irish fans remember blasting Julius Jones up the middle and playing facile backyard games of catch in the passing game. It was so easy - too easy. And after you have seen Brady Quinn's macroevolution the last couple weeks, you would be very tempted to envision an all-out assault by the Irish against the Cardinal "D". Three things have changed from last year, however, that you will want to note.
The first is that a relatively inexperienced defense from 2003, which was short on seniors, has brought back nine starters and matured across the board. You may question the talent at some positions, but almost every spot on the defense has seasoned and improved. The senior leadership is deep, and the chemistry is greatly improved - first and second-year players are now in synch with each other and the defensive schemes.
To take away that big play that Brady Quinn and others threw over the top last year, Stanford has put more zone schemes into their defensive framework. To be frank, the pass rush was horrific last year for the Card, and that left the cornerbacks out to dry in single coverage. The defensive line's rush was not necessarily going to launch forward this year, so defensive coordinator A.J. Christoff has adjusted coverages to better contain the big play.
Upon reading of that change, your immediate instinct will be to tab Stanford a "bend don't break" defense. But that discounts the third change we have seen. The Cardinal transformed their base defense from a four-man front to their current 3-4. With a true nose tackle playing zero technique over the center and two ends who play head-up on the offensive tackles, plus two inside and two outside linebackers, the presentation of Stanford's defense is much changed.
The outside 'backers in particular give greater flexibility and deception for the defense to bring pressure or drop back in coverage. Zone blitzing is the name of the game, and it hasn't worked too badly thus far. The feature statistic of this defense is the 85.5 yards per game and 2.5 yards per carry that Stanford has allowed on the ground, both of which lead the Pac-10.
Now with four men on the field, the linebacking corps is the showcase threat of the Stanford defense. They possess speed and athleticism like we have never before seen in this program, and that is precisely why the scheme was switched to put more of them on the field.
The poster boy for the linebackers' speed is redshirt junior Jon Alston, who last year was a reserve but now is a fourth starter. The Cardinal used a very simple 3-4 look at times last year, which gave Alston time on the field, but now as the "rush" outside linebacker, he is an every down threat. A sleeper recruit four years ago from Louisiana, Alston is a fantastic physical with his speed. Big offensive tackles have a tough time blocking him on the weak side of the field in blitzing situations, while Alston is quite comfortable dropping back in coverage on backs or tight ends. His closing speed and hitting ferocity are fantastic, though he has a little bit of a reputation for overrunning his motor and/or getting banged up. Watch to see if Stanford gets a good four quarters from Alston Saturday; he left in the second quarter last week with a concussion.
More speed comes from Kevin Schimmelmann, who now plays as an inside 'backer after playing the outside "Will" spot a year ago. Two years ago he was a safety; thus, you can understand the transformation he has undergone to become an inside linebacker. At his current 225 pounds, he looks more the part than we could have guessed two years ago, but the redshirt junior has maintained much of his safety speed. Like Alston, he provides a quick blitz threat but can drop back in coverage and run the field. Good closing speed and he loves to hit; leads the team in total tackles (27) and solo tackles (18).
The other good runner in the starting four is fifth-year senior Jared Newberry at the "Sam" outside spot, lining up over the tight end. Once upon a time a walk-on who sat behind Amon Gordon on Stanford's LB recruiting board, he has become one of the great stories of the team. He leads the squad with 4.5 tackles for loss and is a presence all over the field. The last of the starters is the big run-stuffer at the "Mike" inside position - David Bergeron. The fifth-year senior provides a surprising amount of pressure in certain blitzes, but in a light linebacker corps predicated upon speed, he is the big man in the middle (245 pounds).
While Stanford plays its linebacker starters all game, if healthy, the defensive line requires constant rotation. Six players will all see heavy time at the three spots, though the key man is redshirt junior nose tackle Babatunde Oshinowo. At 6'2" and 320 pounds, the Chicagoland native is a rare combination of power and explosiveness off the snap. Irish eyes may not have seen it, but Oshinowo was injured in last year's meeting and spent the game on the sideline.
It was no surprise that Bill Diedrick capitalized by attacking with the power running game right up the middle, where Oshinowo vacated. Running the ball has been a tall task for opponents thus far this year, as "Big Baba" plugs up the interior of the line of scrimmage with often two blockers. His backup, who freely rotates, is the lighter but quicker Nick Frank (6'2" 275). The sophomore is strong and plays with a high motor, and the difference between him and Oshinowo can give centers fits as they face the two styles.
The outside positions are manned by four ends. The most experienced of that quartet is fifth-year senior Will Svitek (6'7" 295), but he has yet to start this year. A surprise infection in his knee just before the season opener required surgery and kept him out of the first two games. He has played as a reserve the last two weeks but is less than 100% in his mobility and pursuit. In his place, senior classmate Scott Scharff has excelled in the starting role. Scharff provides solid pressure outside while a fine tackler - admittedly a positive surprise this year. The weak side end is manned by junior Julian Jenkins and redshirt junior Casey Carroll. Jenkins has grown into a beast and provides a powerful push on that side of the line, while Carroll is smaller but more explosive. As a group, it is hard to judge the three-man front - they are hard-pressed to get a big pass rush by themselves. If Stanford drops back the linebackers, Quinn should have time against these three, though they can make plays.
Finally in the back end, Stanford starts three senior defensive backs. Free safety Oshiomogho Atogwe could have made the jump to the NFL last spring, much like Alex Smith, and he is a star. An excellent tackler who led the team each of the last two years, he is also a playmaker who produces interceptions, breakups and fumbles. Maybe more important, he is the quarterback of the defense and knows the coverages and assignments inside and out - a true coach on the field. Three cornerbacks rotate at the two positions to play regularly, and they are all in their third year of heavy playing time. Fifth-year seniors Leigh Torrence and Stanley Wilson are joined by junior T.J. Rushing. All three have speed, though Rushing has an extra gear of explosiveness that has him employed on corner blitzes and second on the team with four tackles for loss this year.
The punting game was a huge concern coming into the year, with redshirt freshmen at long snapper (Brent Newhouse) and punter (Jay Ottovegio). It was an ugly sight to behold in the spring and much of camp, but the punting has been shockingly good for that youthful pair. The snaps have been excellent, and protection has been solid - giving Ottovegio a safe environment in which to work. His placement kicks with a short field have been his strength, but he has the leg to kick long. A couple times this year, though, he has outkicked his coverage and enabled big punt returns.
The placekicking game is up and down. Redshirt junior Michael Sgroi has boomed many of his kickoffs for touchbacks, but field goals have been a rollercoaster. Three misses in the BYU game (one was allowed to retry because of a penalty) were his low point, but he bounced back. Due to circumstances more than coaching confidence, Sgroi has not had an attempt in the last two games. PATs should be solid, but one bad snap last Saturday led to a miss.
The blocking and return games have been a great strength for Stanford this year. On kickoff returns, T.J. Rushing is leading all of Division I with a 37.6-yard average, including a 99-yard touchdown run. As much as his explosiveness and speed are to be credited, the schemes and personnel elsewhere on that unit are impressive. Michael Okwo is the lead man in front of the wedge, and in particular he is a one-man show on special teams. The true sophomore is biding his time on defense, and in the interim he lays body bag-stuffing hits on special teams. Punt returner David Marrero has yet to break a big run this year, and he has a little bit of a gambler in him. He's close though, and has some motivations to play big in South Bend.
Stanford has already blocked four kicks this year, and their special teams units appear to now be an advantage they bring into most games.
Where Are They Now?
One of the intriguing subtexts to this game for fans is the recruiting landscape, as Stanford and Notre Dame consistently go head to head for top prospects in all corners of the country, year after year. Both sides have won their share the last few years, and it is natural to watch the "ones that got away" with morbid fascination for both Cardinalmaniacs and Domers. Here is a quick look at some Irish targets who matriculated at The Farm, and how they have been faring:
Jerod Arlich - His size set the campus a-buzz when he showed up to start camp in August, looking like a returning defensive linemen, rather than a frosh fullback. As we expected, his strength is the area of greatest need, given the paucity of weight training he had at his high school. The issue has been complicated by early injuries, which have kept Arlich in and out of practices, as well as the weight room. He moves so well and is such a load, it's hard to not get excited about his future. But he is redshirting for very good reason and has a lot of development ahead before his potential will be at all realized on the football field.
Emmanuel Awofadeju - The 6'4" athlete redshirted last year and is now the second man at the "Sam" outside linebacker spot behind Jared Newberry. His pass rushing skills are just as we all thought coming out of high school, given his speed and athleticism. But what has the Card coaches so excited about Awofadeju is his size and physical play. The "Sam" position plays over the tight end and often attacks in close quarters. The redshirt freshman is a load to handle with his length and strength, and he's getting better in a hurry. Newberry is tough to pull off the field as a fifth-year senior, co-captain and team leader in tackles for loss - so don't expect much of Awofadeju on defense, barring injury. He'll see most of his time Saturday on special teams.
Mark Bradford - Last year, the SoCal star grabbed headlines as he led the team in receiving and broke Stanford's freshman receiving yardage record. We expected double-teams this year that would make matters tough for him, but as Evan Moore and Justin McCullum gain more scouting attention from defenses, you expect Bradford to break out. 225 yards in four games is nothing to sneeze at, given the rising production from his teammates, but there is much still untapped from the sophomore. He has to turn on that switch and make himself a consistent force in four quarters of every game. Strengths are his ability to get off press coverage, his hands, and his innate ability to attack the ball in the air in contested situations.
Julian Jenkins - Played as a true freshman in Buddy Teevens' first year, which grabbed the attention of fans. True frosh on the defensive line are as rare as Haley's Comet at Stanford, but Jenkins did not produce in awe-inspiring fashion either of his first two years. Now as a junior, Jenkins is moving a little more inside as a four technique. That caters to his talents, which lie in his strength and power. He does not have the fast-twitch burst to win a lot of battles outside the tackle, but he can cause problems hitting you in the chest. This scheme is a good fit for him, even though he is hard-pressed to rack up stats in a three-man front.
David Marrero - Though Bradford, Moore and McCullum all are excellent receiving talents, none of them possess the gamebreaking speed that you want in your wideout corps. Enter Marrero, who was moved late in the spring from tailback to receiver. He will line up in a variety of positions, however, including in the backfield in single-back or two-back sets. His speed is his strength, while his routes and his technical abilities as a receiver are still developing. So look for him to make an impact when Trent Edwards can get him the ball quickly, letting Marrero make a play with the ball in the open field. He's essentially a slotback. Biggest role right now is punt returns, as it is hard to get him on the field while the top WR trio is producing at their current level. He's waiting to break out, but we don't know how many chances he will get in South Bend, or how he will convert on them.
Allen Smith - Like Arlich, he is on a redshirt path this year, though his story is a little different. Smith came into camp looking like a changed man after an intense off-season of weight training. You remember his 315-pound photos from high school, but he shed a good 50+ of those pounds and rebuilt his body with leaner muscle - now up to the high 280's.. Quick and athletic, he looked good in camp but had a knee injury that kept him out three critical weeks. That being said, he is currently the #4 offensive tackle on the team and will travel to South Bend. Ideally Stanford would like to keep his redshirt, and the tackles have stayed healthy thus far this year, but Willingham's FUBAR recruiting on the offensive line has him in the two deep on a scary thin depth chart.